Date posted:  February 3, 2016

The woman wears a white gown, gold jewelry and an elusive expression in this portrait by famed artist Thomas Sully. Behind the serene composition and flushed complexion, however, is a great deal more. Sully began the piece on July 1, 1808, and finished it four days later; a striking correlation given the sitter’s history and status in Philadelphia. Who was Mrs. Joseph Hopkinson? What were her connections to the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution, the XYZ Affair, and the unofficial national anthem?

Born in 1770 to privilege and politics, she was a daughter of successful merchant Thomas Mifflin and his wife, Sarah, both Quakers. Wealth and comfort surrounded young Emily from her first recollections, but as tensions between the colonists and Great Britain increased, so too did her family’s involvement. Thomas opposed the taxes placed on British goods and refused to import them, while Sarah supported the boycott of such goods at home by refusing to buy them. In time, Thomas even joined the Continental Congress before accepting a commission as major under General Washington. It marked the beginning of a successful military and political career that carried him to the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, the Constitutional Convention (as a signer), and the first governorship of Pennsylvania in 1790.

Emily’s political connections did not end with her father, however. On February 27, 1794, she married prominent attorney, Joseph Hopkinson, son of Francis—an attorney, judge, and signer of the Declaration. The couple followed their families’ examples and actively supported the Federalist cause during the XYZ Affair in 1798, a brief dispute with France over commerce. For his part, Joseph wrote lyrics for The President’s March, now known as Hail Columbia. It became the unofficial anthem and was used throughout the 19th century and even into the 20th century until 1931 when The Star Spangled Banner became official. Hail Columbia is still used today as the entrance song for the vice president. Emily, however, also contributed during this time and presented a painting to Federalist volunteers on July 4, 1798. It depicts an eagle with stars and stripes and held in its talons the day’s popular slogans: Independence and Millions for Defense, but not a Cent for Tribute.

Joseph went on to serve as a congressman and judge while Emily oversaw their large family, nine of fourteen children surviving to adulthood. She died in 1850, eight years after Joseph. The two passed on their sense of patriotism, politics, and civil service as evidenced in the lives of their sons who became lawyers, doctors, and soldiers — continuing a legacy inherited from both their parents.